Song of Solomon: The Joy of…Sex?

 

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
For your love is better than wine.

Like Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon elicits questions along the lines of “What’s this doing in the Bible?” With all its talk of climbing palm trees and milk and honey under the tongue, it presents a problem to those who equate the enjoyment of sex with sin. Often attempts are made to explain away its subject matter as allegory: it’s not really about sexual love but the love of God for his people Israel. That approach would seem to make God extremely kinky, to say the least, and I don’t agree with it. I think it is exactly what it appears to be: a celebration of sexual love which utilizes rather graphic imagery. Perhaps the Song of Songs was used as a part of a wedding-night ritual similar to the more recent tradition of Shivaree.

So why is Song of Solomon in our Bible, and what can we learn from it?   According to Genesis, after creating the world with all its variety of biological life, God pronounced it “very good”. The Hebrews understood human beings to be living souls, composed of both flesh and spirit. Dualistic philosophies which divided creation into matter (bad) and spirit (good) were not part of their theological framework. God created humans with the desire for intimate “one flesh” relationship with other human beings. While it is true that Mosaic law contained some rather strict rules about what kind of sexual relationships were permissible, the idea that sex itself is inherently “bad” or owes more to Gnosticism and related philosophies than to the Hebrew Bible. Sexuality was an integral part of the “very good” world God created and commanded to “be fruitful and multiply”

I’m glad Song of Solomon made its way into the canon, because what it says to me is that God affirms the material world He created, which happens to include sexual attraction and enjoyment. There are some theologies which see the world and everything in it as impossibly ruined and evil, fated to one day be burned up in the fires of God’s judgement. But there are other visions of the future in the Bible: Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom where swords are beaten into plowshares and everyone sits under his own vine and fig tree; Ezekiel’s vision of a river of life flowing out of the Temple and healing everything in its path; Jesus’s invitation to come to a heavenly banquet with abundant food and choice wines.

I don’t think the Bible teaches that the material world is evil.  I think it teaches that the material world disconnected from God is broken and in need of redemption. The material world, when connected to God, is very good. That’s what God intended, is working to accomplish with a little help from his human friends, and what will finally be. And that’s good news to me.

 

 

 

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Ecclesiastes: Is That All There Is?

 

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says Koholeth, the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”

Existential angst is not a new thing, and it is eloquently expressed by the writer of Ecclesiastes. Rabbinic tradition attributes Ecclesiastes to Solomon, which is probably why such an unorthodox if not outright agnostic book made its way into the canon. Many Biblical scholars believe it was actually written much later, perhaps sometime in the second or third centuries BC, after the fall of both Israel and Judah. Regardless of when it was written and by whom, Ecclesiastes describes the efforts of someone who had enough leisure time and resources to study and think deeply about the state of the world, only to conclude that it doesn’t make much sense.

Like the author of Job, the writer of Ecclesiastes notes that reality doesn’t corroborate the prevailing theology of an active and involved God who rewards good people and punishes bad people. He wants to believe that “God will bring into judgment both the righteous and the wicked,  for there will be a time for every activity, a time to judge every deed.” but he doesn’t see that happening in real life. He’s not sure what, if anything, happens in the afterlife. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” and  “All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.”

Koholeth  apparently enjoys a long enough life and sufficient financial resources to attempt many different ways of finding meaning in life: a hedonistic lifestyle involving alcohol and sex, wealth acquisition, creative expression, scholarly pursuits, public service. He concludes that none of his efforts are especially meaningful, lasting, or worthwhile (“meaningless as chasing the wind”) Trying to make sense out of a senseless world is depressing in itself. “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.”  He advocates for a moderate lifestyleDo not be overrighteous, neither be overwise— why destroy yourself? Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool— why die before your time? It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.”  He thinks that people should try to enjoy their work, even if it is exhausting and has no lasting value, and their relationships while they can.“Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do.  Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. “

So why is Ecclesiastes included in our sacred scripture, and what can we learn from Koholeth? I’ve heard many suggestions over the years. One traditional explanation is that Solomon wrote it toward the end of his life, after he had been led astray from God by his many wives and alliances with pagan kingdoms. However, that theory has never been particularly satisfying to me, especially since I agree with the evidence placing the book’s origins in the post-exilic period. Rather, I think it is exactly what it appears to be: a cry of existential angst by someone who wants to believe, but can’t.

I’m glad that there is a place for Ecclesiastes in the Bible, because it says to me that there is a place for the doubters, the questioners, and the dreamers who want the world to make sense, yet believe that it doesn’t. I know plenty of people like that today, which confirms Koholeth’s observation that  “There is nothing new under the sun.” People like that remind me of the story in the gospel of Mark where a father seeking a cure for his epileptic son, grasping at what is probably his last straw, goes to Jesus. Jesus asks the father if he believes Jesus can help, and in complete and unadorned truthfulness, the father cries out “I believe: help my unbelief!”

Ecclesiastes shows that the traditional theology of the people of God as expressed in Mosaic law has reached its limits. It doesn’t work the way it was thought to work, and Koholeth knows that. And if we’re honest, so do we. Ecclesiastes, like John the Baptist, prepares the way for the One who is to come. And that’s really good news to me.

 

 

Proverbs: Principles, Not Promises

A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.

Like the book of Psalms, the book of Proverbs is a collection, but of short sayings rather than songs. I think of it as an ancient version of “Poor Richard’s Almanac”. Rather than a list of promises that have only to be personally “claimed” to be granted to the individual believer, it is a compilation of observations about life that are usually accurate. For example, while it is generally true that “lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth” this statement is a principle, not a rule and there are exceptions. There are some very hard working poor people and some very indolent rich people.

One of the main issues I have with using Proverbs as a book of promises rather than a book of common-sense advice is that it leads to blaming the victim, much as Job’s “comforters” did. For example, if I believe that following certain rules invariably leads to the result of living long and prospering (Proverbs 3:1-2), then it invariably follows that those who get cancer or lose their jobs must be somehow at fault.  Either they secretly violated some of the rules, or they didn’t demonstrate enough faith to successfully “claim the promise”. This is observably not always true, even within the Old Testament. Torah-observant King Josiah dies relatively young, while some of the most egregious royal lawbreakers live long lives. This kind of mistaken theology completely falls apart with even a cursory reading of the New Testament, where many of the most devout God-followers meet horrible, early deaths because of their faith.

Furthermore, some proverbs contradict other proverbs. The most glaring example is in Proverbs 26:4-5, where the reader is instructed as follows:

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
    or you yourself will be just like him.
 Answer a fool according to his folly,
    or he will be wise in his own eyes.

So, which option is the wise person to choose? Do you bring yourself down to the lowest common denominator by arguing with a fool, or do you take him down a peg by proving him wrong? I think these contradictory nuggets of advice were placed side-by-side by the compiler of Proverbs deliberately in order to make a paradoxical point. Both sayings are true.  Depending on the situation, sometimes it’s best to speak up, and sometimes to keep your mouth shut. Sometimes your words will make a difference for the better, and sometimes they will make them worse. True wisdom isn’t one or the other, but knowing when.

God gives us principles to live by, not arbitrary rules that are illogical or impossible to follow. And that’s good news to me.

Psalms: An Ancient Hymnal

“He who sings prays twice”

For many years I’ve made it a practice to read the Bible all the way through, from Genesis to Revelation, each year. I hate to admit it, but Psalms is one of those places where I always get bogged down when reading straight through. (Psalm 119, in particular, seems to go on forever!) I seem to appreciate it best when taken in small doses, as in daily liturgical readings comprised of a short psalm or portions of the longer ones.

I feel a little less guilty about my reaction when I think of Psalms as a hymn book. Hymnals contain hundreds of songs, written by different people in different time periods, and expressing different thoughts and feelings, and I find myself drawn to different ones at different times based on what I am thinking and feeling. Some of them have better theologies than others, too. “In the Garden” resonates with many people, but it doesn’t have very much in the way of theological content. I’ve found myself appreciating it much more when I learned the song was written in an attempt to describe Mary Magdalene’s feelings on the first Easter morning. It’s not meant to be theological, but experiential.

The book of Psalms is really a hymnal, a collection of songs used in public and private worship, spanning several centuries. Many psalms are attributed to David, some to other recognizable Biblical figures, and some to unfamiliar songwriters.  Many times they include musical notations referencing tunes that must have been familiar to ancient peoples, but are completely lost to us today. We have only the words, not the melodies or the rhythmic structures, and even the poetry of the original words is not the same in translation. Sometimes there are introductory notes giving the background of the song, but often there are not, and so the context is another unknown.

Like modern hymns, the ancient psalms are diverse in content.  Some tell stories, such as those recalling God’s deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. Some express feelings of joy, gratitude, confidence, guilt, sorrow, anxiety, despair or anger, often using grand poetic metaphors. Some seem to have highly developed theologies, while others are best described as the venting of raw emotions. In some psalms, the composer is in ecstatic communion with the presence of God, while in others God seems to be distant, unhearing, and uncaring to the psalmist’s deep distress.

I think that diversity is one of the reasons the psalms continue to speak to people many centuries after they were written, who find themselves in many different circumstances. No matter what you are thinking or feeling, you can probably find a psalm that fits those thoughts and feelings. My favorite psalm is the first one I learned, Psalm 23, which reminds me that even when my life leads me through unknown pathways in dark and dangerous times, God is with me. And that’s good news.

Job: No Easy Answers

 

“If God is God He is not good. If God is good He is not God” – Archibald MacLeish

“I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee.”- Job

If taken literally, Job is a very difficult book and in fact quite likely to lead someone away from rather than toward faith. Here’s a quick summary of the story:

Satan goads God into making a bet over what paragon-of-virtue Job might do if his wonderful life takes a turn for the worse. God takes the bet, and quite literally all hell breaks loose in Job’s life. All his children are killed; he loses all his worldly possessions; he contracts an excruciatingly painful and disfiguring disease; his wife abandons him emotionally if not literally, and his prayers for understanding go unanswered. Then his friends show up and try to offer sympathy by suggesting answers for Job’s plight. Since God is all-powerful and all-just, Job must have done something really wrong to deserve his fate. Job insists on his innocence, and says that if it were possible, he’d take God to court to prove it. After many long chapters of speeches by Job and his friends arguing for their differing positions, God shows up and berates both Job and his friends. He berates Job’s friends for assuming Job must be guilty, and he berates Job for demanding answers. God “blesses the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part” by giving him twice as much in the way of sheep, cattle, oxen, and donkeys, and by giving him additional children to replace the ones who died at the beginning of the story. Those relatives and friends who had abandoned him return, bearing monetary gifts, and everyone lives happily ever after.

If taken literally, I have several problems with Job’s story  First of all, I don’t think God is in the business of making wagers with Satan, especially when said wagers would involve torture.  Secondly, the fact that Job had seven more sons and three more daughters does not replace the ones that died. Anyone who has ever lost a child will attest to that. And what of Job’s wife, who I assume was post-menopausal by this time? What of the ten dead children? Were they just collateral damage? Finally, Job never gets the answers he desperately seeks as God never tells him about his behind-the-scenes bet with Satan. It’s as if God answer to Job’s “Why?” is a resounding “Because I said so.” If I were reading this story for the first time, thought it was literally true, and expected insight into the nature of God and suffering, I think I’d be more impressed with Job’s behavior than with God’s.

Fortunately for my faith journey, I think the story of Job doesn’t need to be taken literally. I think it’s a story, not a “historical document”, and stories can be true without being factual. They are  free to tackle serious issues in ways that essays and lectures can’t. I think that’s why Jesus told so many of the stories we call parables. It isn’t necessary to believe that the story of the Prodigal Son literally happened in order to understand the point Jesus was trying to make about the nature of God.

So what is the point of Job? I think the point is that there are many things in life for which there are no easy answers. Job’s friends have a rigid understanding of God that does not allow for bad things to happen to good people. Job’s experience tells him that is not always true, and he will not accept platitudes or pat answers. Instead, he argues with his friends and dares to question God openly, directly and honestly. Rather than squashing Job like a bug for heresy, God rewards him with an epiphany. Job has a quantum leap in his understanding of and connection to God that does not erase his pain, but transforms it.

There are no easy answers for many of the problems we will face in life. Bad things will happen, and along with death and taxes, suffering is inevitable. But God is with us, even when we think he is absent or silent, and he seems to have a preference for honest doubters over those who think they have all the answers. And for me, that’s good news.

Esther: For Such A Time As This

 

When Esther’s words were reported to Mordecai,  he sent back this answer: “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai:  “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”

Esther is an anomaly in the Bible in that it doesn’t directly mention God. For that, and other reasons, many Biblical scholars have questioned both its inclusion in the canon and its historicity. Martin Luther seems to have thought that it belonged more with the Apocrypha than in the canonical Bible.  In the Hebrew Bible, it is included in the third and final section, the Ketuvim (Writings).

I don’t think it matters whether the events described in Esther really happened or not. It may very well be historical fiction, but just because a story didn’t happen the way it is told doesn’t mean it isn’t true. I’ve always enjoyed fantasy and science fiction, in part because of the way these stories are able to pull readers out of the boxes of their own perceptions and see contemporary issues with new eyes. Well-crafted stories are timeless; they speak to us just as well today as they did yesterday, and will tomorrow. That’s what I think of as “eternal” truth.

Esther’s words to Mordecai in the passage above remind me of the Doctor Who episode, “Face the Raven”. Anticipating her own death as a result of her efforts to save another character, Clara says “Let me be brave”. Esther makes the choice to try and save her people, even though she is very aware that her attempt may prove fatal. Things turned out better for Esther than for Clara, but the truth behind both stories is that doing what is right is more important than doing what is easy or comfortable, sometimes critically so.

The eternal truth in the story of Esther  reminds me of Jesus’s words: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.”  I doubt (and certainly hope!) that I will never find myself in a situation as dire and with consequences as far-reaching as the one in which Esther found herself. But if I am a serious follower of Jesus, I will find myself doing things, not because I want to do them, but because they are the right thing to do.

Paradoxically, I have found that as I strive to focus on being kind, helpful, and affirming to others, I find not only that I am more at peace with myself, but that there are sometimes surprising and wonderful consequences that follow. That’s what the story of Esther says to me, and what I think Jesus meant about losing your life in order to find it. And that’s good news to me.

 

Ezra/Nehemiah: Does God Want Us to Build Walls or Bridges?

 

When the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the exiles were building a temple for the Lord, the God of Israel, they came to Zerubbabel and to the heads of the families and said, “Let us help you build because, like you, we seek your God and have been sacrificing to him since the time of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.” But Zerubbabel, Joshua and the rest of the heads of the families of Israel answered, “You have no part with us in building a temple to our God. We alone will build it for the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia, commanded us.” Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building. They bribed officials to work against them and frustrate their plans during the entire reign of Cyrus king of Persia and down to the reign of Darius king of Persia. (from Ezra 4)

Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah.  I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God’s name and said: “You are not to give your daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take their daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves. Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women. Must we hear now that you too are doing all this terrible wickedness and are being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women?”One of the sons of Joiada son of Eliashib the high priest was son-in-law to Sanballat the Horonite. And I drove him away from me. Remember them, my God, because they defiled the priestly office and the covenant of the priesthood and of the Levites.So I purified the priests and the Levites of everything foreign, and assigned them duties, each to his own task.  I also made provision for contributions of wood at designated times, and for the firstfruits. Remember me with favor, my God.  (from Nehemiah 13)

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are set in the immediate postexilic period. As I mentioned in my post on Chronicles, the exile was really quite significant in the development of ethical monotheism. There was one God and he expected his people not only to believe, but to behave in certain ways. The people had been unfaithful in both belief and practice, and therefore God allowed the destruction of Jerusalem, its temple, and the forced removal of its people to Babylon. I imagine that they had a fair amount of time think during this divine time-out, to ponder on what they might have done wrong and what they ought to do differently if given the chance.

Now, with the fall of Babylon to the Persians and the edict of Cyrus in 538 BC, those who wanted to do so were allowed to return to their ancestral homelands. In large part through the leadership of Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the layman, they worked to rebuild the temple and the walls of Jerusalem. The rebuilding projects did not go smoothly, partly because of lack of money, but also because of opposition from the people who were already living there.  Personally, I think the exclusionary demands of Ezra, Nehemiah, Jerubbabel, and other leaders served to exacerbate that opposition.

The people Ezra calls “enemies of Judah and Benjamin” were apparently Assyrians who had moved in at the time the Israelites were evicted, and were converts to Yahweh-worship. (This is where the Samaritans of Jesus’s time originated.) They weren’t Baal-worshiping pagans; they sincerely sought to worship the God of Israel, but for all intents and purposes, weren’t allowed to do so because they lacked the proper bloodlines. Israelite men who had married non-Israelite women were also required to send their wives and children away. Ezra and Nehemiah believed such harsh measures were needed in order to ensure that there would be no temptation to worship other gods.

I can understand where they were coming from; I really can. They didn’t want the people to fall under judgement for idolatry again. Their motives were right, but I think their methods were wrong. They thought the way to please God was to separate themselves from the rest of the world and thereby avoid contamination by it. I think  God prefers it when the people of God engage with the world in order to transform it. What would have happened, I wonder, if the God-fearing Assyrians who offered to help build the temple been allowed to do so, and the Hebrews used that as a teaching opportunity? What might have happened if the Hebrew men had remained with their families, and followed the Mosaic admonition that  “these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.”

I like to think of the Bible as a great choir or orchestra composed of many voices, and we choose the voices to which we listen. Ezra and Nehemiah are two of those voices, but the melody is Jesus.  I cannot look at the life and teachings of Jesus and think that God wants us to build walls of separation between ourselves and those who are different from us. Jesus was the supreme bridge-builder in bridging the gap between God and humankind, but he also broke down  barriers separating people groups, and the early church seems to have taken that thought to heart. Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

If the Bible were a Harry Potter novel, Ezra and Nehemiah would want to exclude all the “mudbloods” from participation in the kingdom of God. God, however, is more Hufflepuff than Slytherin. He wants to include everybody. And that’s good news.